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Finally, a Little Offense Is Plenty for Nats

Lastings Milledge, right, is greeted in the dugout after hitting his 13th home run of the season, a second-inning solo shot that gave the Nationals an early lead against Los Angeles.
Lastings Milledge, right, is greeted in the dugout after hitting his 13th home run of the season, a second-inning solo shot that gave the Nationals an early lead against Los Angeles. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The video highlights played in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse before last night's game. Over and over, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe starred on the flat-screen monitors, and his sinker tucked itself away from opposing bats and left hitters swinging foolishly.

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Lowe's sinker turns invisible as it nears the plate, dropping somewhere far and away. What's the best way to compensate? "Hoping that he's up," Manager Manny Acta said before the game. As in, hope that Lowe makes a mistake, leaving something high in the strike zone.

Lowe rarely left pitches high last night. But when he did, the Nationals made him pay. The two innings during which they succeeded against Lowe made the difference last night, boosting them to a 2-1 victory over the Dodgers before 26,110 at Nationals Park.

Lowe (10-11) pitched eight innings, allowing two runs on six hits with six strikeouts and one walk. But the Nationals used two one-run innings to break his steady tempo and mark the scoreboard. Lowe's tough-to-touch sinker couldn't save him from taking the loss.

"He's pretty good. He's made a lot of money with it," Lastings Milledge said of Lowe's sinker.

Milledge blasted his team-leading 13th home run in the second inning and Emilio Bonifacio scored on a piecemeal effort in the third. The two-run lead was enough thanks to a solid effort by the Washington bullpen and an outstanding defensive night for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was involved in all of Washington's four double plays.

The win represented the Nationals' third victory in five games, and it was also one of their most complete performances. It has been a cruel month for the Nationals, who had not won at home since Aug. 3. But previous victories against the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs -- added to last night's win against the Dodgers, who are second in the National League West -- should help build a positive vibe as the season concludes.

"I think the most important thing, other than beating Lowe, is it's been a while since we shook hands in white uniforms," Acta said. "It's been a while since we've won here. Winning at home and winning a close game, too, shows a lot."

Nationals starter Collin Balester (3-6) earned the win, and though he looked shaky at times during his five innings, he allowed only one run on five hits.

In the fifth, Balester hit the first two batters and then the situation soon turned dire. Balester had trouble putting away his pitching counterpart, Lowe, who battled to a full count and then walked to load the bases.

"I don't know what was going on," Balester said. "I guess I was trying to get the ball in too much."

A bizarre play with the bases loaded gave Los Angeles a run, making a bad inning worse. Zimmerman touched third for a force out after fielding a routine grounder, but catcher Jesús Flores dropped the throw home. Nomar Garciaparra, who broke to the plate, scored on the play. Balester's night finished the inning after giving up that run.

"I actually thought he was all over the place in the last two innings," Acta said of Balester. "Even when he was getting guys out, he was missing his location bad."

The difference was two early but critical innings against Lowe.

In the second inning, Milledge jolted a fifth-pitch fastball over the left field fence. Lowe kept down the four previous pitches in the sequence to Milledge. But the 3-1 delivery did not have its normal downward bite. Milledge turned swiftly on it and deposited into the Los Angeles bullpen.

"It's tough because the ball cuts back on the corner," Milledge said of Lowe's pitches. "He backdoors that thing all the time. And he knows how to control it. You just have to wait him out until you can get a pitch you can drive."

The Nationals again scored off Lowe in the third. After that point, Washington had trouble squeezing out runs. But it didn't matter in the end. The Nationals earned a win against Lowe, a pitcher who dominated them to the tune of no runs and one hit in their July 26 meeting, and started some movement in a positive direction.

"If we can keep continuing playing like this and not making the same mistakes we've made with losses all those games," Zimmerman said, "I think it will be huge for us the last month."


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